Golfing legend Arnold Palmer will always be remembered as golfing royalty. And at the start of a week where the tournament bearing his name starts in Florida, our golfing ambassador Bill Elliot pays hails the man known as The King, a sporting icon who faced up against the golfing greats - and prostate cancer. 

Arnold Palmer
26 Sep 2016
In - Sport Golf

Bill Elliott writes

As a journalist, you tend not to have sporting heroes. 'Fans with typewriters' was the phrase we used to employ to describe colleagues who were more starstruck than inquisitive.

It's a general rule, of course, and so there are exceptions. Mine were specific: Muhammad Ali, George Best and Seve Ballesteros were never less than heroic. Flawed, as we all are, but also magnificent performers. To this short list I always added Arnold Palmer.

I missed most of the very best years of Palmer, but I caught the twilight ones. Thirty-six years ago when I covered my first Masters, I managed to set up a one-on-one interview with Arnie at Augusta National. His media guy told me that Arnie always had his hair cut at the Augusta Club barber's (yes, they had their own barber back then) on the Tuesday of the tournament.

"He's booked in for two o'clock so wait outside and he'll give you ten minutes" was the command. I was there on time at the rear of the clubhouse, a quiet spot, and waited. Arnold came out, saw me, asked if I was Bill and then shook my hand before suggesting we sit together on a veranda bench to have a quick chat.

The actual interview lasted no more than fifteen minutes, but an hour and a half plus three beers later we were still sitting there. By now the golf talk was finished and we were chatting about life. He asked me more questions than I asked him. In the end I had to excuse myself because I had a copy deadline and London was calling.

Bill Elliot and Arnold Palmer

It's a small story but a pertinent one. Arnold Palmer was a great golfer but he was also a natural people person. It wasn't fake, wasn't based on image improvement, wasn't the by-product of a PR team anxious to improve the brand. No, this was just Palmer being Palmer and a bloke who was as interested in everyone else as they were fascinated by him.

His emergence in the 1950s after a stint as a US Marine was vital to the growth of golf in America and then the world. Before him the old game had been a middle class pursuit, a sport centred on the country club and the business relationships that grew out of 18 holes.

Then two things happened: Arnie, and the technical ability of television to cover a game that was spread over a big chunk of countryside. Suddenly this blue-collar guy from the steel towns of Pennsylvania, the son of a greenkeeper, caught the mood of the times. His looks, his charisma, his way of playing – attack and then attack again – made him a massive star and golf exploded alongside his fame.

Soon he was joined by Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. The Big Three were anointed and through the 1960s, American golf doubled in size. Five million players in 1960 became 10 million by 1970 and 6,000 golf clubs became almost 11,000. TV exposure grew, prize-money for professionals rocketed and Palmer bought himself a jet plane that he flew with the same flamboyant aggression he used on the course.

Palmer died in September 2016 but the memories of the good times, the golf and the laughter remain vivid for many millions of men and women.  

In 1997 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, had a radical prostatectomy and, typically, used his experience to try to help others. He lent his name and his image to research in the USA and is still the face of the disease to many millions.

Prostate cancer didn't kill him. Like so much else in his life he dealt with it and got on. In the end he just died of old age and a tiring heart. At 87 he had lived a life few of us can even imagine. He loved being Arnold Palmer, loved the attention and the kudos of being a global sporting legend. But he never lost sight of his roots, treated everyone the same and never stopped looking for the opportunity to laugh.

His record proves that he was truly great golfer but, those of us fortunate enough to spend time in his company know that above all else Arnold Palmer was just a really, really good guy. 

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